It's almost Mental Health Month, and I want to talk about Cody Lee Miller. Unfortunately, most people probably know him as #ManInTree. The internet lit up with #ManInTree hashtags three weeks ago after Mr. Miller's 25 hour occupation of a towering sequoia tree in downtown Seattle.
Last week, Mr. Miller was arraigned in court. His bail is $50,000. His crime is reportedly $80,000 in damages to the tree and throwing apples at passersby.
His story, and interviews with his mother, highlight the shortcomings of our mental health system: not enough early recognition and intervention for mental health conditions in teens and young adults, not enough support for families before a crisis occurs, and overreliance on incarceration instead of treatment.
Every day, people living with mental illness end up in jail. Nationally, two million people with mental illness are booked into jails every year. Most of these people are not violent criminals. With proper mental health treatment, they likely never would have been booked.
Jails are the worst possible place to place people experiencing mental health crises. The response to people experiencing psychiatric symptoms in jails is often punitive, shackles or solitary confinement. This only makes symptoms worse and decreases the likelihood that these individuals will be able to successfully reenter their communities. While I understand the importance of preserving nature, how did we ever get to the point that we place more value in a tree than we do a human life? It's time to change this.
Programs like the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) are crucial in breaking the reliance on the criminal justice system to address a mental health issue. However, they are only one piece of the puzzle. Mr. Miller - and countless others - need a community mental health system that reaches out to people who are struggling and provide respectful and effective mental health services and supports. In the long run, we save significant money through early intervention and linkages with mental health services and supports than we do by waiting for symptoms to reach crisis proportions and then incarcerating people.
Cody Lee Miller may have gained notoriety as #ManInTree, but exhibiting the symptoms of mental illness shouldn't land him in jail. Our community leaders should step up and reject this travesty and provide Mr. Miller with the mental health care he needs.
Our Spring 2016 issue of the Spotlight includes information on early intervention and diversion programs and why they're so critical. If you believe, like I do, that Mr. Miller and other people who experience mental health conditions should get treatment, not jail time, please take a few minutes to reach out to your local and state political representatives. NAMI members like you can drive change in our community.
Ashley Fontaine, MSW
NAMI Greater Seattle